Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Economist on Grammar

You know if The Economist has a piece on grammar, there is a problem.

Indeed, the piece points at many of the problems with teaching English in general, and teaching writing in particular. But it also misses several points.

The author is right to point out that the separation of linguistic off from English has in no small part been a problem for teaching English. The result is that grammar has gone off to live in linguistics departments. Worse, the way linguists understand grammar is not how it needs to be understood in order to learn how to write well. I have had discussions with linguists before, and they are universally perplexed by my argument that to write well you need to learn grammar. They think of grammar as linguists, not as practitioners of the language, and that makes a huge difference. The writing teacher wants to teach style, using the rules of grammar and syntax as they have emerged in the English language. More, they want to teach a particular style of English, which is different from the spoken Englishes which have emerged in different places around the world. The linguists understand that using language is impossible without grammar, that you literally cannot create ungrammatical sentences, so they are perplexed that we want to teach the rules. The English composition teacher needs something different from teaching grammar and syntax than the linguists provide -- they talk past each other, meaning different things.

So the solution is not to talk to the linguists. Strangely, they are not the best way to learn grammar -- from the point of view of writing well.

What people need to do to learn how to write well is, again, to read. They need to read a great deal, and they need to be taught how to read well. That means close reading. Once people are familiar with sentences, teach them the rules of those sentences. Show them how meaning emerges in a sentence -- and how if they do not word things just right, their meaning may be unclear, or even the opposite of what they intended. Learning the rules of grammar and syntax allow one to fine-tune one's writing; it does not allow one to learn how to write well in the first place.

Let me give an analogy.

Suppose we have three children, A, B, and C. Children A and B have watched basketball all their lives. Child C has never seen a basketball game, but has been taught the rules. Child A is taught the rules of basketball, but child B has not. Which child do you think will play basketball better? My guess is that child A will play it best, then child B, then child C. Knowing the rules of something are almost useless if you are otherwise unfamiliar with the game itself. Watch enough games being played, and the rules start to become evident. But then make those rules explicit, and your play will become more fine-tuned, much more improved.

The same is true of writing. The reader will do better than the non-reader, even if we teach the non-reader the rules. And the reader who knows the rules will be a much superior writer.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome to Camplin Consulting. Any thoughts, ideas, or recommendations are welcome -- but remain the property of Camplin Consulting.